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Make Room for Grace

Annunciation (14th century), reverse of two-sided icon from the Church of St. Clement, Skolpje, Macedonia. Located in the Icon Gallery, Ohrid, Macedonia.

The Annunciation by Piermatteo Lauro de’ Manfredi d’Amelia (c.1450-1503). Located in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Massachusetts.

The usual setting for Mary and Gabriel in paintings of the Annunciation is an enclosed space, like a room, the nave of a church, or even a canopied throne. Purely exterior scenes seem to be nonexistent; whenever the two figures are posed under an open sky, there is always a prominent structure like an arcaded hall, towered building, or walled garden that at least partially surrounds them and defines their spatial environment. St. Luke’s account provides no obvious rationale for this, yet apart from the simplest compositions which isolate the figures on a plain background, indoor spaces, or combined interior/exterior spaces are the only settings we find in either the Western pictorial or the Eastern iconographic traditions. Apparently, some sort of painted space is a required ingredient when illustrating the Annunciation.

This can be readily explained by symbolic suitability. The enclosing space depicted by the rooms and gardens accords with Mary’s modesty and virginity, and, like the vases filled with lilies that are her familiar attribute, it is a container which accommodates her in a way analogous to the way her own body accommodated her Son. Similarly, tradition identifies the buildings with the Temple of Jerusalem, which contained the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant, again symbolic of Mary’s role as Theotokos.

Finding Marian symbolism here is no surprise, of course, though it may be surprising to think of a room or space itself as a symbol, especially when there may be many more obvious symbols to focus on. We tend to let space operate unrecognized and unappreciated as the “background” for the real action. Sometimes its presence is too obvious to be ignored, however, and in so rich and mysterious a subject as the Annunciation, where every symbol can be assumed to be multivalent, we may well ask what more the depiction of space could be trying to telling us.

To find out, let’s see how space is used in two very different but representative versions of the Annunciation: an early-14th century icon, the “Ohrid Annunciation,” and an Italian Renaissance work from around 1475, attributed to a now obscure artist, Piermatteo d’Amelia (in his time, his fame granted him the privilege of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; it was his work that Michelangelo later removed when he took on the task of repainting the ceiling).

Spiritual Dimensions

As different as the depictions of space in these two paintings are, both represent ingenious solutions to the fundamental artistic problem raised by the Annunciation: how to symbolize, using nothing more than the simple materials of art, the vast, indeed, infinite distance that lies between the immanent and the transcendent, the physical and the spiritual, the human and the divine; or, in very general terms, the near and the far. It doesn’t seem possible. But when artists hear words like “distance” or “near and far,” they think immediately of perspective, which deals precisely with space and the various methods of portraying its three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. (This is already a kind of symbolism, since we know there is no real space in a painting.) The remarkable thing is the conceptual leap artists made to relate the physical dimension to the spiritual.

Consider the “Ohrid Annunciation.” In typical iconographic fashion, the space is squashed flat against a radiant gold-leafed surface. This produces a spatial environment that looks peculiar and unnatural. It would seem that one of the columns in Mary’s throne must be passing right through her body, and even though the upper surface of the capitals is visible, so also is the underside of the roof they are supposed to be supporting. Nevertheless, everything is recognizable enough for us to understand what the spatial relationships are intended to be. It’s just that the artist is not very concerned with creating a realistic illusion of space or distance. Why? Because he wants to show us that there is no distance, either physical or spiritual, between God and his beloved creation. Near and far have been abolished by the grace of the Incarnation, the finite and the infinite reconciled. This is an abstract, mystical view of space, which appeals to the faith of the viewer, not the experience of the senses. So Mary’s body is “spiritualized,” lacking volume, and the gold leaf that lies in the same pictorial plane as everything else symbolizes the God who has come down (or “forward”) from an infinite distance to dwell at the same level as humanity, which itself has been “raised up” infinitely high by grace.

This sort of “inverted perspective” appears in every true icon and frequently in Western medieval art and religious paintings of other periods. But in the West, in the century or so leading up to the Renaissance, things began to change, first in Italy, then elsewhere. Artists began to abandon spiritual space in favor of more realistic perspective systems: Blue skies replaced gold leaf, and inverted perspective gave way to geometrically precise linear perspective. The goal was to create a convincing spatial setting for a less mystical, more down-to-earth portrayal of religious subjects, one that corresponds with everyday visual experience. Did this artistic turn toward visual realism indicate an equivalent turn away from the spiritual dimension? We’ll come to that point in a moment.

Window on the World

First, a word about the theory behind linear perspective. Linear perspective presupposes an objective viewer who stands at a distance from the things he observes. The central idea is that the picture plane can be likened to a piece of glass set up between the viewer’s eye and objects seen at a distance. (We may note that the word perspective means to “look through,” indicating its theoretical aim of making the painted surface disappear: The painting becomes a transparent window through which the viewer looks into a seemingly real spatial world). Imaginary sightlines drawn from the eye to the objects are traced or “projected” onto the intervening picture plane to make a perfect two-dimensional record of their form and contour.

The most important practical effect of this process is that parallel lines moving horizontally away from the viewer will, when projected onto the picture plane, actually converge diagonally toward each other. The point where these lines meet is called the vanishing point; it is defined to be on the horizon, which the theory says is infinitely far away. Of course, parallel lines never meet in reality; they only appear to do so to the eye because of the geometry involved. The conceptual difficulty of making sense of infinity and understanding how parallel lines can intersect explains why linear perspective can be so troublesome. But by the middle of the 15th century, we find a host of artists like d’Amelia situating the Annunciation in realistically spacious interiors, confidently rendered in linear perspective.

The most notable feature of d’Amelia’s painting, however, is the strikingly foreshortened passageway that appears between Gabriel and Mary. D’Amelia and his contemporaries seem to go out of their way to set up conspicuous displays of spatial depth like this; there are many similar examples. Here, the converging lines in the elaborately tiled floor lead the eye off to the far distant horizon, glimpsed through a portico in the dead center of the picture; the spatial effect is further highlighted by the placement of Gabriel and Mary right up against the picture plane in the foreground.

Infinity Contained

A cynic might assume that d’Amelia is just showing off—”See, I know how to do this newfangled linear perspective thing”—but why then didn’t he use the same device in all his paintings? Once again, it is the meaning of the Annunciation that inspires the depiction of space. Like the spiritual perspective and gold leaf of the icon, linear perspective takes what is infinitely distant and brings it forward into the plane of the picture, while allowing it to retain the appearance of distance. The vanishing point in these paintings symbolizes the transcendence-in-immanence embodied by Jesus, the God-Man. The divine gold is at the vanishing point, humanity in the foreground, but both are encountered in the same pictorial space.

The development of linear perspective is one of the major achievements of Western art, but it still rankles some in the East, who perceive it as a fatal departure from sacred Tradition in favor of shallow literalism and materialism. Not to be outdone, many in the West find the mysticism of icons incomprehensible. The distance between these perceptions is considerable, but far less than the distances encountered in the Annunciation, and just as reconcilable. The icon may emphasize the spiritual reality of its subject through abstraction, but by removing the illusion of depth, the icon actually asserts its own objective physicality all the more forcefully, in the same way that all abstract art does. The physical eye does not “see through” an icon, which enforces a more tangible relationship between the icon and the viewer; that is one reason why icons are physically venerated. The Western perspective painting may emphasize the historical, physical reality of its subject—the Annunciation can be pictured in such realistic detail because it really happened—but is not a perspective image, which makes the material surface disappear, in effect more “spiritual,” more dematerialized than the icon? We see through the painting into an illusory, virtual world.

Yes, icons are decidedly abstract, Platonic and ideal; Renaissance paintings like d’Amelia’s are realistic, Aristotelian, and Ignatian (though compared to the gritty realism of Northern Renaissance or later Baroque art, still unmistakably idealized). But both East and West affirm St. Athanasius’ formula, “God became man that man might become God.” These paintings express that mystery of the Annunciation in their own way. In both paintings, infinity is brought before us in the form of a humble piece of wood or canvas smeared with colors.

And so we come full circle. Each picture itself is a container: The infinity enclosed within its frame is a figure of the divine infinity contained by Mary in the body of Jesus.

Michael Schrauzer


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